Adoptees As Parents: Alone On A Raft In The Ocean

There is no shortage of assistance available for adoptive parents. Books, Web sites, parenting classes… you name it, the amount of information is staggering. But when adult adoptees (or first mothers and fathers) look for help, there is precious little information, if any.
Take, for example, the dilemma I faced this past week. My first-grade daughter came home with, yes, the dreaded family tree assignment. I knew this would come up eventually but I wasn’t prepared for it for another few years at least. The assignment was given Monday and due Friday, leaving me scant time to figure out what to do. Because, while my daughter isn’t adopted, I am. And the same sealed records laws that prevent me from obtaining my own heritage also keep my children in the dark.
By most accounts, the family tree assignment is obsolete. It assumes all families follow the stereotypical 1950s-era “nuclear family” pattern. In this age of divorce, remarriage, adoption, donor conception, etc. there are any number of ways in which such an assignment is a major FAIL. But that didn’t give me any answers for my daughter. This situation strikes me as yet another example of the fact that no one thinks about what happens when adoptees grow up. For us there are no books, Web sites, or helpful classes. When was the last time you saw a class at an adoption agency such as “Adult Adoptees 101: What To Put On Medical Forms” or “Explaining To The Non-Adopted Why Being Called An ‘Adopted Child’ Is Insulting.” The obvious answer, of course, is to restore access to our original birth certificates and start treating us like “normal” people instead of second-class citizens. (Oh, and get rid of the family tree assignment, while we’re at it). But in reality we are left on our own to muddle through it as best we can.
I reached out to my friends, within the adoption community and outside it, for help with my daughter’s assignment. Fortunately my adoptee friends came to the rescue, explaining how they’d handled similar situations and offering advice and resources. (Thank you, everyone!) But most of the available resources are written by and for adoptive parents. That may help parents and educators be more sensitive to families with adopted children, but how to increase sensitivity toward families that include ADULT adoptees?
My friends not connected to adoption generally fell into two categories: “What’s the big deal?” and “Just write down your adoptive family.” To answer the first, of course it’s a big deal. In fact, it’s the biggest deal there is. Heritage and origins is basic to our very being. People who have this information take it so for granted that they can’t fathom not having it. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s beyond difficult explaining to the general public that no, adoptees can’t just walk into the courthouse to get our information and yes, we should have the same access to our origins as everyone else. Now my children are facing the consequences of a decision that was taken out of their hands, and mine, before any of us were even born. They are not adopted. They should not have to deal with adoption… and yet they do, and so will their children.
As for the second part, “just write down your adoptive family,” that’s fraught with problems too. Even if I had a fantastic relationship with my adoptive family, doing so feels to me like perpetuating the same lie that is on my amended birth certificate. I was NOT born to the people listed there. I was born to my first mother and my unknown father. The fact that my first mother wants no contact doesn’t change that. The fact that my father apparently doesn’t know I exist doesn’t change it either. They are the genetic forebears of myself and my children. As it happens I do not have a good relationship with my adoptive family. (The fact that some people think that automatically disqualifies anything negative I happen to say about adoption is a whole ‘nother matter.) To put my adoptive family’s names on my daughter’s family tree, to perpetuate the lies, advances the illusion that adoptees can simply be dumped anywhere with no consequences. But adoption does have consequences, and those consequences last for generations.
I’ve written before about the difficulties adoptees have becoming parents themselves, especially parents by biology. Imagine the first blood relative you’ve ever known and it’s your own child. That is too messed up for words. As my children grow older I find such difficulties only increase. Sometimes I feel like we are floating alone on a raft in the ocean. There are no maps to where we need to go, no rescue boats coming along to help us. We have to face each wave, each challenge, on our own. (With big TV choppers circling us, displaying banners that say “Why aren’t you grateful to be adopted?” and “Stop making waves!”)
As for the family tree assignment, here are the best resources I could find, especially the first link (a PDF).
Again, these are specific to adopted children in the classroom, but can be extrapolated to children with parents who were adopted. At least, I think they can be, but I’m too close to adoption to see it the same way the general public does. I’m not sure my daughter’s teacher really understood my concerns, or the problem. She was sympathetic, but the vibe I got was that she found the whole situation confusing.
And that really sums it up, doesn’t it? We adult adoptees are so invisible to society, people have no idea how to react to our concerns or issues.
In the end, my daughter put down “unknown” for her maternal grandparents, and I had flashbacks to all those times in doctors’ offices, writing down “unknown–adopted” on medical forms. She is confused as to why I can’t give her this information, although she’s familiar with the fact that I’m adopted and that her maternal grandmother chooses not to have contact with us. But, explain adoption politics to a first grader. She doesn’t understand why the law prevents us from knowing. She tells me that makes no sense, and I agree with her.
It’s so basic even a first grader can understand. Why can’t other people?


  1. I too, inspite of not being adopted, have trouble doing the old family tree stuff….my family, in their weird way, has so many ins, outs and weirdnesses, and yet, the way we deal with it – my daughter is part of the tree – her father is not….

    And, since he is not the only one, it makes life interesting…to me…

    But being in foster care made it even more interesting. It made the family tree entirely vanish. There is no before at all…just the after.

    Complexities make life a zoo.

  2. I still remember being given this assignment in the third grade, 1967. I gave it a fair amount of thought before labeling all the spaces with question marks. I thought I deserved a high grade for my honesty but the paper was returned with a grave admonishment to fill in the blanks with names or else. Being that amom and teacher knew each other in that very small town, amom retrieved the paper from me without provocation upon my return home. It was returned to me, completed with a-relatives names, the next morning with instruction not to deface before submitting. It was never mentioned again, by teacher or parent. Such was the treatment of adoptee identity issues then.

    My almost-17 year old daughter has never had the family tree assignment! Not sure if this is a local fluke or if they’ve decided it’s better to just replace it with something else. I was all ready to tell them why such an assignment can really suck for a lot of adoptees and their children. Hopefully, they’ve already got the message.

  3. Lori, you are so right. It’s all a zoo.

    Jimm, if that had happened to me I’d be furious. I had to do the assignment too (probably sometime in the early 80s) and I recall filling it out with a-family info, partly because I knew that was what was expected but also because I was ashamed to admit I didn’t know anything about my origins. I wish I’d had the courage to do what you did. If I had, though, my a-parents would have been furious. Adoption was Not To Be Discussed, under any circumstances.

  4. My parents WERE furious, Triona. Well, mom was, dad never mentioned it. The icy look she gave me when retrieving the paper would have frozen a volcano.
    Adoption was never discussed in our house, either.

  5. Thanks for this post, and Jimm, you were brilliant (at such a tender age!) …though your adoptive parents and teacher in collusion with them did not think so. I think that if all adoptees were allowed to go to school with question marks instead of names, some teachers would at least become aware of what’s wrong with the system of closed records.

    lorraine from
    First Mother Forum

  6. http://Anonymous says

    Wow! I keep reading this article over and over. Everything is so true, so me. As an adoptee and a teacher I refuse to give the Family Tree assignment. You have put in print what is in my mind but what I am unable to explain to others. I had to do that assignment as a child and I lied. My children had to do that assignment and I lied. Why, because other people would be “hurt” and other people would be “uncomfortable”. It took finding my Mother, knowing my heritage, to finally say NO. I am the one that has always felt “hurt” and “uncomfortable”. I stopped lying and started helping other adoptees find their heritage so that they too could say NO.

  7. Jimm, I find it disturbing that after all these years and so much supposed “progress” made with regard to adoption, there are still adoptive parents who react this way. I attribute part of that to the fact that adoptee and first parent voices are all but excluded from discussions on the subject. Also, that anything not 100% happy-fluffy about adoption is ignored or ridiculed.

    Lorraine, that was part of the reason why I felt I had to bring this to the teacher’s attention. My first reaction was to let it slide but I think we need to point these things out so more people realize the impact adoption has.

    Anonymous, as adoptees I think we’re conditioned to bury our own thoughts and feelings so as not to “upset” others. I think that’s part of the reason why there is such a dearth of information by adult adoptees, for adult adoptees. Just as we are not supposed to claim any desire to know our original heritage, we are also not supposed to talk about the negative ways adoption affects us. You can see it in the way so many adoptees will automatically preface anything they say about adoption with, “I really love my adoptive family,” because there is such pressure to conform to society’s expectations of what adoptees should be.

  8. We are supposed to teach (our) children to be themselves, so maybe that is the answer. If you were comfortable with it, instead of putting a name, she could of asked a question. The question that was bothering her. Why can’t I know who my Grandmother is because my Mom is Adopted? Years (and years and years, lol) ago, when my daughter was in kindergarten, I used to teach her sign language when she was in the tub and she loved it. (I thought once about being an audiologist). She showed her teacher she knew the the sign letters and I told the woman, I taught her them and then I mentioned I think all kids should learn sign in school as a required language. My daugher agreed of course, and so she began to teach this class of 5 year olds a bit of sign. Maybe if your daughter brought it up, she could impress on other kids that Closed Adoption Records cause confusion and is wrong and unfair.

  9. http://Anonymous says

    I am adopted, and I am raising two adopted children. I grew up believing I was Irish and Italian, as my adoptive parents said that was what they were told. I found out that I am, at the very least, French Canadian. My birthmother’s ancestors came to MA from Quebec. I’ve got the map of Ireland all over my face, and I’m confident I’ve got Irish in me. I attended many an Italian festival, and I felt connected to Italians. Ha! I remember feeling SO strange when I realized I was French. For a second I had to re-assess my identity. I was surprised that it mattered so much to me, I didn’t think it did until I found out that I was wrong.

    My son was confronted with the baby picture assignment. We have no pics before age 2.5. His teacher suggested he “draw a picture of what he thought he looked like.” Ya, sure, that’s the same! He was confronted with the family tree assignment a few months later, dressed up as a “let’s learn about what countries your ancestors came from.” I told my son he was the luckiest boy on earth because he could choose to put down where his dad and I came from (where was that, again, who knows, but we stuck with Ireland and Canada for me), or he could chose to put where his birthparents came from. His birthfather is Hispanic, and all we know about mom is there’s some Irish. I told him some kids don’t even have two parents, never mind four! I had to spin it somehow. This assignment did affect him, as it came up in a therapy session.

    I agree that it’s a ridiculous assignment, given the make up of today’s families. Many kids have moved several times and lost pics, all kinds of things could have happened. Some adults haven’t even bothered to find out about their ancestry, or they are a bunch of everything and none of it matters to them.

    I anticipate getting the “what country are your ancestors from” assignment again for my daughter, who is 6. I might have fun with it, as she is Caucasian, African American, German, and American Indian. Mix that with her dad and I, and it will be a heck of a story. Actually, this time I might just raise a stink. My kids have enough to deal with without this to worry about.

  10. Thank you for this post! I was struck dumb when one of my children (a first grader) came home with the family tree assignment and just told her teacher she wasn’t doing it.. that it was archaic and outdated and unfair to adoptees. The teacher seemed embarrassed and said she had to assign it (?) as all the first grades were doing it, but did not require my daughter to do it. But I know my daughter still felt awkward in class while they were working on the project. This would have been a perfect alternative. (Well. Perfect would have been eliminating it altogether. Whose business is it?)

  11. I don’t remember doing this project (as an adoptee) but I do have my original birth certificate from when I was in an orphanage so maybe it just wasn’t a big deal. One of my sons (adopted) doesn’t have the last names of his first parents. So what he did was drew a tree with his name (with our family name) on the trunk and the names of adopted parents and sibs and extended family, etc. on the branches. Under the ground, where the roots were drawn, were the first names of his first parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. He was happy with the compromise and if he’s happy I’m happy!

  12. I found this to be a very astute post. As a birthmother, I am thankful everyday that I re-connected with my son.
    My perspective being somewhat different from the other commenters, your line “I was born to my first mother and unknown father,” jumped out at me. I just want to say that my son’s OBC probably also says, “father unknown.” The adoption agency social worker counseled me to “protect” my son’s father by not giving his name. I worried for years that if my son ever got hold of his birth certificate, he would construe “father unknown” to mean that I didn’t know who the father was. Not the case at all.